Bouncers in Prada make service fashionable
Ian Jack's Notebook
Saturday 18 September 1999
Eventually we drew up in a quiet street close to the Thames, among buildings that looked like warehouses. A well-built young man sprang forward from a gateway and opened the taxi door. "Welcome to the River Cafe," he said, though he might equally have said "Welcome to the New York Mets" or "Welcome to the gang" and sung a few lines from West Side Story ("When you're a Jet/ You're a Jet all the way/ From your first cigarette/ To your last dying day"). He wore a baseball cap and a leather jacket and looked as though he might be handy with a baseball bat. He was a doorman; cool and in command.
The rise of the new cool, commanding doorman is an interesting flourish of modern times. Previously doormen used to come in three categories. One, the bouncer: he stood outside pubs and clubs in the shape and dress of Bernard Manning. Two, the 18th-century footman: he stood outside grand hotels and the swankier department stores in clothes from Der Rosenkavalier, waiting for the next sedan-chair with a prosperous American widow inside to pull up. Three, the commissionaire: he stood inside offices in a vaguely military get-up, often with ribbons that suggested war service. A fourth category, the cinema queue, foyer and children's matinee superintendent, often in dusty epaulettes, has disappeared, probably circa the last Jack Hawkins film, but many examples of the other three still survive.
They have one thing in common; uncool. Just as the critic Gilbert Adair once argued, pre-Hugh Grant, that it was difficult for a film made in London to suggest modernity because the policemen wore quaint helmets, so it is with people in the livery of antique servants and the Victorian military. The new fashion in doormen arrived from New York. Many have head-sets, most wear expensive-looking black. You can find them outside clubs, bars, restaurants and "boutique" hotels from Covent Garden to Aberdeen. They look as though they drink mineral water and visit the gym, quick and alert to trouble from the street, even though the street may be located in suburban Essex rather than the Lower East Side.
Do they have a useful function? The man at the River Cafe certainly did - you need directions to find your way from the gate to the door, not to mention, later, help in finding the minicab that will take you home. Otherwise, their duty is to add to the status of the place they serve; decorative janissaries, at least as cool as any potential customer and rather more so in most cases, including mine. As a psychological device, it probably works. You find yourself thinking: "This is a fashionable place, and they are letting me in". At one time the liveried footman and the cinema commissionaire might have had the same effect: "Smart chaps they have down at the Odeon these days. We must go."
Like valet-parking and the stretch limo, they may be American transplants we could well live without. They have, however, achieved one remarkable thing. In a country where servicing the customer is held in low esteem, they have made the professional servant fashionable, not just to his employer but also to himself. Head-sets and a Prada suit, anyone?
A small paperback book fell from my copy of another newspaper last Saturday. Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler (born Vienna 1862, died Vienna 1931). This is the short, 95-page piece of fiction, first published in German in 1926, which Frederic Raphael and the late Stanley Kubrick used as the basis for the screenplay of Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, about the perils of sexual fantasy. I haven't seen the film, but everybody I know with a valuable opinion says it's bilge, preposterously self-regarding and unbearably long, though Nicole Kidman is quite OK.
Then again, like many lavishly- publicised phenomena, I feel that I have in fact seen it. So many clips on TV, so many newspaper articles; the act of visiting a cinema for the event itself becomes almost redundant. With so much - what's the word - buzz in the air, the idea of offering readers a free copy of "the book of the film" must have looked a promising jack with which to raise circulation.
Perhaps it worked. The book's cover has the detail of a decorous painting by Gustav Klimt. Nicole Kidman is nowhere seen or mentioned. The text is chaste and filled with those ominous, Central European sentences:
"From Fridolin's apartment near the General Hospital in the Josefstadt it was barely a quarter of an hour's walk to the Schreyvogelgasse... he stepped through the unlit hall into the living room and realised immediately that he had arrived too late."
And: "Fridolin hurried on and took a cab to the Ringstrasse, driving first to the Hotel Bristol. There, as if authorized or commissioned to inquire, he asked the porter whether Baroness D, who was said to have poisoned herself that morning, had been staying at this hotel."
And: "Fridolin could even sense the stale, sweetish smell of this pale girl, who though still young had for months, for years, been losing her bloom in the course of heavy household chores, tiring care and nocturnal vigils."
I read on for quite a bit. A couple of references to "naked beauties", but nothing about g-strings and other erotic wear which was required in such copious quantities by Kubrick. No doubt about it: Literature, and from an age when the literary equivalent of the filmic train-entering- tunnel was as far as could be gone with sexual acts, when the imaginations of readers and viewers still needed to do the work. But this must have been the most high-minded free newspaper offer since my own time editing The Independent on Sunday, when we gave every reader a beautifully presented and edited copy of the Maastricht Treaty, on the grounds that something so apparently vital to Britain's democratic future deserved to be put in the hands of the demos.
What's the line from Larkin about people surprising themselves with the need to be more serious? The Independent on Sunday that day sold more copies than before or since: a peak. I like to think we owed it to the Maastricht Treaty. A more likely explanation, however, is that The Observer contained photographs of Madonna, naked, on the same morning. Much advertised, it sold out early to people who otherwise read the News of the World and forced regular readers to switch to its rival. In newspaper marketing terms, this is known as "the vector effect", the lighter hot air at the top drawing up the heavier stuff from underneath.
One of my favourite walks is along the south bank of the Thames in London, from Hungerford Bridge all the way downstream to Bermondsey. You can do almost all of it now along car-free lanes and promenades, and there are always interesting views and developments: a new bridge being built across the river to the new Tate at Bankside power station, the Globe Theatre, perhaps a liner moored next to HMS Belfast in the Pool of London. On a fine day, it persuades you that life really is returning to the river (which it is continually promising to do) and that the future of London looks bright. Two words can puncture this optimism, the name of a man whose grand flat overlooks the river a few minutes upstream: Jeffrey Archer.
Can it really be that the Tories see him as their favourite candidate for London's new mayor? Apparently so. On Tuesday he became one of the party's two official candidates (the other is Steven Norris). Many prominent Tories (Michael Howard, Norman Fowler, Malcolm Rifkind) back him. All that stands between him and the final candidacy is a postal ballot of London's 50,000 party members, due before the end of the month. He might well win a majority: people persist in seeing him as a card, a bit of a lad, Toad of Toad Hall.
He is all these things, and also an operator to whom the truth is a stranger. His wife Mary referred to his dissembly famously as "Jeffrey's gift for inaccurate precis". It isn't a trivial fault.
This week in the Evening Standard, his biographer, Michael Crick, asked 10 questions of the opaque difficulties which have marked his career and which he has still to explain convincingly (or at all). They range from his academic record to his share-dealing. If the implication of these questions was wrong, then the Standard (which opposes his candidacy) deserves a writ for libel. None has arrived so far.
If the Tories vote for him as their candidate they are a stupid party. If London votes for him as mayor next May, it is a stupid city. Surely not?
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